Saturday, 28 November 2015

Learning to walk in the dark

I have just started reading, for Advent, Barbara Brown Taylor's book, the title of which I've stolen for this blog post. In her introduction, she describes her experience of "full solar spirituality", which 'focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith.' 'You can usually recognize a full solar church,' she suggests, 'by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God's presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.' (p.7)

Although for Taylor '[t]here are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely,' her spiritual gifts 'do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice. Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage. Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains. Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence.' 'What would my life with God look like,' she wonders, 'if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it.' (pp.8-9)

I like the Taylor contrasts here, and I recognise it: not just as a contrast between 'others' and 'me', but as a contrast within others, and within myself too. I've been struck, over the last few days, by the uneasy way we seem often to have one foot in each of these worlds. For my own benefit as much as anyone else's I want to try and tease out just a few of those places where 'solar' and 'lunar' have been apparently entangled, and articulate some 'wonderings' from within those entanglements.

Two came close together, at Lambeth Palace, of all places. The home and 'office' of the Archbishop of Canterbury, where a group of vicars (including me) were gathered together on Thursday. We were meant to have been welcomed in the morning by Archbishop Justin himself, but he had been called away, to the Houses of Parliament just the other side of the Thames, to listen to David Cameron's statement on potential military action in Syria. Archbishop Justin joined us briefly after lunch, and offered us a few first reflections, building on what he had just said in the House of Lords. It wasn't the moment to engage him in debate - he would be leaving our gathering to meet with advisors, to draft an official response. As an insightful friend observed, he looked 'a mixture of resolute and exhausted'. And this in itself is immensely significant, I think. I'm not going to focus here on his analysis of whether or not this constitutes a 'just war'. I'm just observing that here was someone 'on the way' to having to articulate a response, with a heavy heart, with no 'solar' confidence in the goodness and rightness of any of it, no clear vision 'bright' before him. He was 'learning to walk in the dark', on this issue, as on many others.

He was followed, in that great hall in Lambeth Palace, by Lord Peter Hennessy, hugely-respected constitutional historian, whose task it was to reflect on the state of British politics. He certainly knows his history - much of the last few decades, from an intimate involvement with many of the most senior figures in the British political establishment. He cracked some witty jokes. But what impressed me most about his presentation was his honesty, about his utter cluelessness about where British politics is going. He had some hunches, of course, as any good pundit would. On the probability of an EU-exit vote, and the knock-on inevitability of Scottish independence. He had some opinions about Jeremy Corbyn, and George Osborne (among others), which he wasn't reticent in sharing. But when it came to predicting the future, even over the next two or three years, he admitted with endearing frankness that he was a bit stumped. You got a sense of a man who was just beginning to realise he was going to have to 'learn to walk in the dark' - perhaps for the first time in many years.

The last example is much smaller and closer to home. Our local church is at a point where there are some big issues to be wrestled with: we have an increasing financial deficit, and depleting reserves; at least one of the denominations which make up our partnership is looking very small, aged and fragile (and overall we can't exactly report dramatic growth in Sunday attendance, the most prominent statistic by which the CofE judges local congregations); we have begun new ventures over the last few years which some see as quite 'radical', but they are mostly very small, fragile, and developing often with a snail-paced slowness. The chances are, over the next few years, that the costs of having paid clergy in Hodge Hill will continue to rise, the congregation will slowly - or quicker than that - begin to shrink, the deficit in the budget will continue increasing, and our impact within our wider neighbourhoods will remain small, fragile, and often painfully slow. If you add into the picture the prospect of ongoing, and deepening 'austerity' (in the rapidly-dissolving welfare 'safety net', and the cuts to public services and amenities locally and across our city), and a level of indifference - if not tension or hostility - between different communities who inhabit the same neighbourhoods here, not helped in any constructive way by the pronouncements of politicians or the mass media... well, there's a risk, at least, of a bit of 'descending gloom', on the one hand, and increasingly-frantic quests to "do something, anything" on the other. It is at once comforting, and doubly disconcerting, that most of these challenges are being wrestled with by the Church of England as a whole, at a national level, with a similar mix of responses.

And, like any good leader should, I find myself returning to our vision statement: "growing loving community - in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill". It's a statement I treasure, and am deeply proud of: not just because it sounds good, but because it emerged out of good, attentive, shared conversations as a church - and because we're doing our very best, I think, to try and put it into practice. When things are feeling gloomy, when we're tempted into the reactive "do something" responses, the vision is what we should keep in our sights, hold it before us as our direction, and the light to our path. And if we have a vision, then we can work on a strategy to help us achieve it more fully, 'step-by-step' processes that will take us in the right direction, and ways of discerning what not to do, or what to stop doing, that isn't in line with the guiding vision.

And yet... I sense shades of Barbara Brown Taylor's 'solar spirituality' about the return to 'the vision'. There are costs to such a clarity too - not least the temptation to believe that it is possible to 'get it right', and that if we could only get it right, then everything will be OK. On the brink of Advent, I find myself needing to relearn the art of 'walking in the dark': keeping my eyes wide open, of course, but coming to terms with not being able to see clearly, even to be aware with clarity what is immediately around me, where the next step will take me, let alone to comprehend the terrain beyond the next tree. On the brink of Advent, I find myself remembering to distrust 'bright visions' for their seeming ease of achievement, for the clarity of what they purport to include and exclude, not least the questions and doubts which arise both when we are on the move and when we are standing still. I find myself remembering that walking slowly - with painful, snail-like slowness - is often the thing we are called to most urgently. That experimenting, without any guarantee of success, without even being able to predict many of the consequences, is sometimes all we have, and that bearing the risks and the unexpected costs is an unavoidable part of the journey. And that, in the tentativeness and loss of confidence, there is, of necessity, a gently-growing sense of trust: in one another, in strangers we encounter along the way, and just as crucially, in God. And that, surely, is what faith is about.